|Korea Times file|
By Jon Dunbar
Many foreign residents of Korea are scrambling after the sudden introduction of stricter visa rules late last year and their implementation early this year.
The rule change stands to affect all applicants for the F2-7 visa, as well as current F2-7 holders looking to renew their visas, plus their spouses. An F2-7 visa is a type of resident visa available to holders of other visas, mostly D and E working visas. It is earned based on a points system, which takes into consideration various factors including education level, income, volunteer activities, participation in the Korean Immigration and Integration Program (KIIP) and age. Before, one needed at least 80 out of 125 points for the application only, but now the 80 points must be maintained to renew the visa.
Bob, 42, a 15-plus-year resident of Korea, half of which has been on an F2-7 visa, found he is no longer eligible for his visa under the new rules. The visa awards points based on age, with those aged 30 to 34 earning the most points at 25, but these diminish the older one gets. The recent change puts Bob below the 80-mark.
"In order to qualify again I need to get level 5 on Topik and pass the KIIP," he said. "If I can do that before my visa renewal I'll be fine to renew if the law doesn't change again."
He renewed his visa in December right before the rule change, giving himself three more years. His two options are to raise his points for the F2-7 renewal, or to qualify for an F5-10 permanent residency visa.
"If F5 doesn't go through, with Topik 5 I think I can get a few more renewals, but really at this point if F5 fails I need to plan to move somewhere," he said. "I have just under three years left, which should be plenty of time. I'm in a better position than most."
Kyle, 37, has been working in Korea for 12 years, and on the F2-99 visa for about half that time. An F2-99 is awarded on fulfillment of additional requirements after five years on an E2 visa. Under the new rules, to extend this visa, the applicant's income must meet or exceed the gross national income (GNI). Also, while previously applicants needed to pass either KIIP stage 4 or the relatively easy TOPIK level 2, now only KIIP stage 4 will do, which leaves Kyle scrambling.
"It would make sense to me to add that criteria to those applying for the F-2-99 visa for the first time, but seems unreasonably punitive to those who obtained it under the previous requirements," Kyle said. "The problem is that the GNI keeps going up, and salaries . . . have not. This isn't an immediate problem for my next renewal ― although I can't even say that for certain, because I won't know the GNI for 2020, the year that I will submit my earnings for, until spring 2021."
Kyle renewed his visa a year ago and has two years left.
"In my situation, given the new renewal requirements for the F-2-99 visa, renewal is certainly doable," he said. "It's something I should inevitably achieve if I commit to it. But that's the problem ― I'd need to commit to it. I'd need to spend at least six months working toward the language requirement, and then I'd need to keep an eye on my salary and the GNI all year, just to make sure everything adds up satisfactorily. I'd need to be thinking about this for the remainder of my current visa period, and assuming I successfully renew for the usual three years, I need to start planning ahead for the next renewal, depending on how much the GNI has risen."
Additionally, the rule changes affect the spouses of E2-7 visa holders. To convert their F1 or F3 dependent visa to an F2-71, the application must be made simultaneously with their spouse's F2-7 visa application. This means a person marrying a current F2-7 visa holder cannot apply for the F2-71; they can only marry prior to the visa application and apply simultaneously. If it is too late, the only way forward for the spouse is for the F2-7 holder to upgrade to an F5 permanent residence visa. Additionally, holders of F2-71 visas must now have spouses whose annual income matches or beats GNI.
Licensed immigration specialist Jang Man-ik, who runs the consulting agency Visa in Korea, criticized the new visa rules for their suddenness, taking just over two months from announcement to implementation.
"Notice was given so late," he told The Korea Times. "This new rule has been started Jan. 2, but the notice was given on Oct. 29, 2019. It means F2-7 visa holders or those preparing to apply for an F2-7 visa didn't have enough time to prepare. If a new rule is not different from the previous one, there is no problem, but it was a huge change."
Jang recommends foreign residents affected by the rule changes to continue through the KIIP program, raise their incomes by working extra jobs or starting businesses, volunteer or seek higher degrees through cyber universities.
He advises anyone who needs immigration information to phone 1345. Those concerned should also follow fb.com/visainkorea to read his announcements.
Kyle said, "When I first acquired the F2-99, it gave me a profound sense of reassurance. Nobody else was sponsoring my visa. It wasn't tied to a person or a company or a salary or a performance. It was mine, and renewing was a negligible process. And now all of a sudden, there are all these new strings attached. I'm honestly not sure that it's worth the effort to keep the visa, because it certainly isn't providing any peace of mind anymore."